Dancing up the Sun

By Mike Sutton

It’s an hour before dawn on the first of May, and Roger is chatting cheerily while driving through Berkeley’s empty streets.  Although he’s lived in California since the 1980s, his accent (and sense of humour) still proclaim his English origins.  In the 1960s, while studying electrical engineering, he joined Hammersmith Morris Men.  Now, after retiring from a senior post with Bay Area Rapid Transit (the local Metro), Roger remains an active member of the Berkeley Morris side.

The Berkeley dancers, knowing about my research into the transmission of Morris dancing from England to America, have invited me to join their May Day celebration.  Consequently, Roger (in Berkeley’s red and white kit) and I (in Hexham’s blue and white) are heading for Inspiration Point – a local park with a view of the eastern horizon.  As we join the crowd there, the skyline already has a rosy tinge.

The proceedings start with a re-enactment of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, which has been performed for centuries in one Staffordshire village.  The earliest report of it dates from 1532, though the reindeer horns still used there have been carbon-dated to the eleventh century.  The Berkeley dancers have newer antlers, but display them in the traditional manner – mounted on short staves, and held proudly upright as they weave a serpentine path through the crowd.

Modern scholars dismiss any suggestions that the custom might derive from a prehistoric pagan ritual.  Yet the sight of horns twisting and turning in the half-light still generates a visceral response, daring us to hope that the absence of archival evidence may not be conclusive.  As the sky brightens, the dancers put their horns aside and tread the homelier figures of the Cotswold Morris.  When the edge of the sun’s disk appears, the dancing stops. Everyone faces east, singing the old Cornish May carol.

We were up long before the day oh!
To welcome in the summer, to welcome in the May oh!
For summer is a-comin’ in, and winter’s gone away oh!

Once the sun clears the horizon the Cotswold dances resume, and I’m encouraged to join in a couple.  Finally, participation becomes universal.  The musicians form the hub of a big circle, as everyone links hands in a simple ring dance to affirm that summer has truly arrived.   Afterwards, spectators disperse in the brilliant Californian sunshine while the Berkeley crew trek home with Josh, their lead musician.  English and American traditions mingle on his breakfast table, where bacon and eggs meet bagels laden with cream cheese and smoked salmon.

Later we dance at a local junior school, where Robin (the side’s official Fool) and Lucy (Berkeley’s own pantomime bear, substituting for the traditional hobby-horse) generate much hilarity with their comic routines.   We also entertain appreciative (though quieter) audiences outside several café-bars, before ending the tour with lunch at a local brew-pub.  We’ve danced up the sun, danced in the summer, and danced all around our neighbourhood, as Morris folk have done for centuries. Now, we eat and drink in convivial fellowship before returning to everyday life.

People often ask Morris dancers “Why do you do it?”  For some it’s all about exercise, and the ‘righteous high’ they get when endorphins start flowing.  For others, it’s an enjoyable pub-crawl in fancy dress – similar to a stag night, hen party or carnival procession.   A few talk about preserving our cultural heritage – others shrug and say: “we just do it”.  But how inclusive is this “we”?  Can anyone join in?

In a few English villages, Morris dancing survived the Puritan hate-campaigns, agricultural depressions and global wars that killed it off everywhere else.  It is these communities alone who truly own the dances.   We enthusiasts of the Morris revival – which now includes around a hundred North American sides – are playing a different game, in a different league.   The dances do not belong to us, though we are privileged to borrow them temporarily.

Some early revivalists argued (despite historical evidence to the contrary) that the Morris dance originally ‘belonged’ to men only.  Today there are still thriving all-male sides – Hammersmith and Great Western, for example.  And there are twinned sides like Hexham Morrismen and Hexhamshire Lasses, who tour together but dance separately.   But there are also women-only sides like Windsor and Rivington whose zest and technical skills rival those of the best male dancers.   And Berkeley is one among many mixed sides who can deliver a first-rate performance.

Clearly, Morris has become more inclusive as regards gender – but what about ethnicity?  On America’s West Coast, the revival has certainly attracted recruits whose ancestral links with England are remote or non-existent, some of whom are already making their own contributions.  Although most dances in the Berkeley repertoire replicate faithfully what English folklorists collected long ago, one recent addition to it fits steps and figures that are recognisably Cotswold to a Jewish Klezmer tune from Eastern Europe.

Berkeley learned Klezmorris from its creators, Mossy Backs Morris of Seattle.  On first hearing, it might sound alien to English ears.  But it’s worth remembering that in the early 1500s Morris dancing was often called “Moorish dancing”, and there is some evidence that it may have come to England during the period when the Moors were being expelled from Spain.  If the Morris does have overseas origins, then it is one of many examples of our national culture’s integrative capacity.

Christmas pantomimes blend fragments of English folk drama with borrowings from the Italian Commedia del’ Arte and the French Harlequinade, along with tall tales from the Arabian Nights.  And like the pantomime, Morris survives by refreshing itself periodically.  America has already contributed to it – several Morris tunes logged as ‘traditional’ by pioneer collectors were actually borrowed (by some unknown village fiddler) from the Minstrel shows that toured Britain in the nineteenth century.

The Berkeley dancers, in their turn, have borrowed elements from various traditions to create a synthesis that works for them (and their audiences).    After teaching Klezmorris to me, they invited me to dance it with them on May Day, and it was so captivating that I immediately resolved to take it home and share it with other English dancers.  Whether it will take root here remains to be seen.  But it may yet become another item in the trans-Atlantic cultural traffic which our Diaspora project is highlighting.